It is high time for the UK to take action on Myanmar at the UNSC

London can’t continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of a people under a brutal military government just to not offend Russia and China.

Protesters supporting Myanmar's anti-coup movement standing in front of Big Ben on a sunny day in London hold placards reading 'Junk the Junta'
Myanmarese people protest against the military dictatorship in Myanmar outside parliament in London, Britain, 01 February 2022. [EPA-EFE/Andy Rain] (EPA)

Moments before voting in favour of a historic General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Myanmar’s Ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun told fellow delegates in New York “Myanmar understands and shares more than others the suffering that the people of Ukraine are encountering.”

For the past 14 months, the people of Myanmar have been under attack from a brutal military government led by deluded strongman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, whose attempted coup on February 1, 2021, ended a decade of quasi-democracy in the country.

The generals have responded to nationwide civilian resistance to the coup with a systematic campaign of mass killings, torture, sexual violence and abuse. In resistance strongholds, military forces are burning entire towns to the ground and cutting access to food supplies in an attempt to starve people into submission.

For the first time in decades, state capitals and ethnic minority areas are being bombed, reflecting the fact that the generals have lost control on the ground. IDP camps are being targeted for air raids and artillery barrages, while in recent months massacres of unarmed civilians have become a hallmark of the generals’ increasing barbarity. And yet, in contrast to the decisive response by the international system to Putin’s aggression, the response to Min Aung Hlaing’s attack on the Myanmar people has been, at best, one of empty rhetoric.

For this the UN Security Council, the international system’s most powerful body, bears much responsibility. UNSC members took less than 24 hours to table a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was a timely and necessary response to the situation. By contrast, no UNSC member has ever tabled a resolution on Myanmar, in spite of decades of atrocities committed against ethnic minorities, including the genocidal “clearance operation” against Rohingya in 2016 and 2017, and more recently against the entire country by the Myanmar military.

Put simply, the UNSC has failed to uphold its legal responsibility under the UN Charter to act for international peace and security. It has failed in its responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

This should be cause for deep unease for the United Kingdom’s government and among its diplomats in New York. As Myanmar’s former colonial occupier, the UK has taken principal responsibility for Myanmar among the Western states in the UN. It is historically the “penholder”, that is, the lead drafter, of resolutions on Myanmar in the GA in New York and Human Rights Council in Geneva. In those forums, the UK has done well. But in the Security Council?

At the Security Council in New York, the UK’s obsession with consensus and fear of failure have rendered it impotent in the face of one of the great humanitarian crises of this century. Its thinking is that it’s better not to present a resolution than to present it and have it vetoed by another permanent member, Russia or China, that shares close ties with the illegal military government and sells it weapons.

The UK has instead focused its efforts on achieving consensus by settling for lesser options, including non-binding statements on Myanmar that amount to little more than fine words. This reasoning crumbles under scrutiny.

Consensus was not an issue to the US and Albania, the co-penholders on Ukraine, when they tabled a UNSC resolution denouncing Russian aggression, even though knowing it would be impossible to pass. Council members’ overwhelming public opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s forced defence of its actions, including exercising the veto, demonstrated Russia’s growing isolation on the international stage.

Why then does the UK continue to shield the junta’s allies Russia and China from accountability at the Security Council instead of upholding the Council’s legal responsibility to act on behalf of the Myanmar people? Why then does the UK allow the treacherous generals to go about their brutal business unimpeded?

The UK has an opportunity to act at last having assumed the rotating monthly role of UNSC president at the start of April. This is an opportunity for leadership, if the UK is capable of it. Council Presidents are able to set the agenda for the month in many ways, including by indicating when taking office what the priorities will be and what they hope to accomplish.

First, the UK should work with another Council member to convene an Arria Formula, or informal, meeting on Myanmar to enable UNSC members to be briefed on the situation by well-informed civil society and other experts who cannot address formal sessions of the Council.

Second, the Arria Formula meeting should be followed later in the month by an open meeting of the UNSC on Myanmar to enable a formal debate on Myanmar. The UK should propose a resolution on Myanmar in the UNSC and take it to a vote at that meeting. This would make it clear once and for all who sides with the Myanmar people and who sides with Min Aung Hlaing and his murderous generals.

This resolution should demand that Min Aung Hlaing’s illegal military government stop its systematic campaign of violence against civilians. It should call for a comprehensive global arms embargo and targeted economic sanctions against the junta and its businesses, as well as the referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court where Min Aung Hlaing and military government leaders should stand trial for their decades of atrocity crimes against the Myanmar people. A Chinese or Russian veto of the resolution may be a likely outcome, but one for which they will face immediate condemnation and long-term consequences.

The UK’s misguided obsession with consensus on Myanmar at the UNSC only serves to embolden Myanmar’s genocidal generals and those member states that seek to profit from chaos. With its April presidency under way, the UK’s principal responsibility is not the protection of China or Russia. It is the protection of the people of Myanmar. It’s not yet too late for the UK to show some courage and exercise some leadership. Almost but not yet too late.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.